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Bucket list destination:

Crete

  • Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

Last updated: 06 May, 2023
Expert travel writer: Rachel Howard

By far the largest and most varied of Greece’s many islands, Crete is practically a country in its own right (as any fiercely patriotic Cretan will assure you).

Divided by three towering mountain ranges, Crete takes time, patience, and good driving skills (or sturdy walking boots) to navigate.

Big, brash resorts are clustered around the three main cities on the north coast — Heraklion, Rethymno, and Chania. It can feel like one extended tourist resort — especially around Malia, Agios Nikolaos, Hersonissos, and Elounda.

The wild south and even wilder hinterland are an entirely different proposition. Here you’ll find ravishingly empty beaches, awe-inspiring gorges, deliciously remote villages, and some of the best food anywhere in Greece. If you’re into archaeology, you’re also in for a treat.

Orientation

Heraklion

Heraklion is the bustling, built-up capital of Crete. Though more of a modern (and slightly charmless) administrative centre than a place for holidays, Heraklion does have a certain gritty authenticity. Restaurants cater mainly to locals, so the food scene is excellent and affordable.

It is also the closest base if you’re on Crete primarily to visit Knossos, 5km away.

Chania

The seaside city of Chania is a vibrant jumble of old and new. The Venetian harbour and old town swarm with tourists in summer, but there are some interesting craft studios and restaurants among the souvenir shops.

Off season, there is a youthful nightlife scene in the meze joints and bars that line every square. The nondescript outlying neighbourhoods have little interest for the visitor.

Rethymno

Often overlooked by travellers, Rethymno’s gentle charms are all the better for it. With a lively student population, this fortified city thrums with energy year-round.

Intriguing remains of the area’s ancient, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman inhabitants are scattered in and around town.  The rest of the Rethymno region feels unscathed by time and tourism.

Southern Crete

The south coast is the least developed, good for more independent, adventurous travellers. The golden coastline from Souda to Agios Pavlos feels almost Californian — all lilting sand dunes, yoga retreats, and palm-lined beaches. The two main resorts – Palaiochora in the west and Ierapetra in the east – are relatively unspoiled in comparison to the north coast of Crete.

Eastern Crete

In the mountain plateau of Lasithi and the Sitia peninsula way out east, you’ll find a more rugged, authentic Crete. Canyons riddled with caves and waterfalls ripple through this agricultural heartland, making this corner of Crete a good choice for low-key hiking holidays. Minoan ruins, monasteries, and sleepy villages speckle the landscape.

Food & Drink

Seasonal, local, and traditional, Cretan food is phenomenally fresh and tasty. With its balmy climate and diverse landscape, the island produces a vast range of amazing produce, from olive oil, honey, wine, and cheese, to more atypical crops such as avocadoes, bananas, and mangoes.

Grilled, roast, or stewed meat is much loved by locals, particularly goat and lamb, which is often free-range. There’s less of a fishing industry than on smaller islands.

Cretans are generous hosts. Portions are generally huge, and you’ll be offered shots of raki (local grappa) wherever you go.

What to try

Raki, the local spirit of choice (see above), goes well with nubbly graviera cheese, wrinkly olives, and apaki (smoked pork).

A summer staple, dakos is the Cretan version of Greek salad: grated tomato, crumbled feta, olives and capers heaped onto a crunchy barley rusk and doused In plenty of olive oil. Stamnagathi (wilted bitter greens), fried snails, kaltsounia (turnovers stuffed with cheese or spinach), and sfakiani pitta (cheese-filled dough drizzled in honey) are also Cretan delicacies.

Travel advice

When to go

Crete is one of the rare Greek islands that is truly a year-round destination.

In the winter, you can visit the archaeological sites without the crowds, mingle with locals in the many lively cities, and even hit the ski slopes of the White Mountains.

Spring and autumn are perfect for hiking, painting, or cooking holidays.

The ‘summer’ tourist season lasts a full six months on Crete. As the southernmost island, it has a temperate climate and the sea stays warm well into November. July and August are the busiest, and hottest, months.

Getting there and away

Crete has two international airports at Heraklion (best for Knossos, Lasithi, and Ierapatra) and Chania (best for the Samaria gorge, Sfakia, and the famous beaches of western Crete).

Car and passenger ferries from Athens (7-12 hours) run several times a day throughout the year to Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion. It’s best to take an overnight ferry and book a cabin. There are also ferries from Santorini to Heraklion, which takes 2-6 hours depending on the vessel.

Getting around

It’s pretty much essential to hire a car in Crete, unless you plan to fly and flop in a five-star resort. Distances are considerable and mountain roads can be twisting and treacherous, so be prepared for plenty of driving time. Parking In urban centres can be challenging.

Taxis in all the cities and towns are plentiful and reasonable compared to other European destinations.

Cycling is only advisable for serious road or mountain bikers.

Where to stay

First-time visitors keen to see Knossos usually base themselves in and around Elounda, Agios Nikolaos, and Heraklion.

Others opt for the Venetian old town of Chania and its environs, a handy base for exploring the beaches and gorges of Western Crete.

Less crowded than Chania and Heraklion, Rethymno makes a convenient alternative roughly in the centre of the island. From here, you can venture south into the unspoiled Amari valley and the long, sandy beaches along the south coast.

If you want to avoid the crowds altogether, stay away from the coast in a charming mountain village such as Milia.